Decoding A Language: An Interview With Andrea Scrima About Her New Novel “Like Lips, Like Skins”

Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima’s second novel (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl 2021), is a diptych; the first half of the book is dedicated to the first-person narrator’s mother, the second half to her late father. We meet Felice in the early eighties as a young art student in New York and as a newcomer to West Berlin before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall; ten years later, she returns to New York to install an exhibition of her work. Another fifteen years pass and we encounter her as a single mother poring over her father’s journals in search of her family’s past. Like Lips, Like Skins is about art, memory, and the repetitions of trauma. The first chapter was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte. Ally Klein interviewed the author over the course of several weeks via email.

Ally Klein: There’s a scene in Like Lips, Like Skins in which the first-person narrator, Felice, recalls studying the Sunday comics as a child. She buries her nose in the newsprint; when she fetches a magnifying glass to get closer, she discovers an “accumulation of tiny dots.” Individually, they’re no more than “lopsided splotch[es],” but together give rise to a bigger picture. I see a parallel here to the way the novel is stylistically conceived. Memories pop up seemingly at random, and in the end, they produce an image that works intuitively. The book eludes a stringent retelling, but leaves the reader with a sense of understanding something that can’t be expressed in terms of an idea or concept. The discoveries, if that’s what they can be called, are situated elsewhere.

Andrea Scrima: As a child, Felice doesn’t yet know that the interaction between the eye and brain fills in the gaps, the missing information between disparate points; for her, it’s just magic. I use language to create imagery that can exist outside of description or symbolism. In literature, images often have a function, they’re there to convey a certain idea. But some images are irreducible, they’re not all that easy to explain. And these are the ones that interest me most: they’re autonomous, they have a life of their own. Sometimes they’re a bit uncanny.

I’m interested in literature’s resilience, its ability to find a formal language for phenomena that can’t be easily captured in words. A language the reader somehow perceives as “true,” even if they can’t necessarily say how or why. Read more »

Memoria: Journeys with Weerasethakul, Swinton, Sebald

by Danielle Spencer

Memoria - film posterLast night I (Danielle Spencer) went to the New York Film Festival screening of Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) in Alice Tully hall at Lincoln Center. I last joined a large gathering 19 months ago, in March of 2020.

The film opens a soundscape, memoryscape, landscape—and a bodyscape, all of us in the vast hall sloping gently down towards the screen like a nighttime jungle floor. The opening scene is still, close and quiet, and then there is a very loud sound, which startles me. It also startles Jessica (Tilda Swinton) who awakens in surprise. I am anxious that there will be more surprising loud sounds. Then Jessica rises and sits in a room of the house. She looks at what in my memory is a small bright aquarium in front of the windows, warmly lit with orange fish. The space and sound around the aquarium are dark and oceanic.

In the opening passages of Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald) the narrator travels by train to Antwerp. He finds his way to the zoo and sits beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about, and then visits the Nocturama, peering at the creatures in their enclosures, leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. He returns to the waiting room of the Centraal Station, remarking that it ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses, and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth. As the sun sets and the light dims in the station waiting room, he sees the waiting travelers in miniature, as the dwarf creatures in the Nocturama.

When I was ten my father and I spent the spring in Budapest, where he proved theorems at the Institute of Mathematics and I was enrolled in the Kodály music school. Our small apartment building was near the top of a hill on the hilly western Buda side of the city, home to several mathematicians and their families. Some nights we went up the street to eat schnitzel at the restaurant on the corner. Read more »

The Promise of Happiness

by Chris Horner

Beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness —Stendhal

Colours of Lake Maggiore (Photo: C Horner)

How can beauty promise happiness? And what kind of beauty would this be? What sort of happiness? Happiness and Beauty have been central issues for thinkers since antiquity, and the question of what they really are, and whether we should even prize them as we do, have been subjected to sustained critique and discussion for millennia. I don’t intend to join that debate here. Happiness and Beauty: the more we try to get clear about them, the more they seem to recede from us. But, like Stendhal, we cannot do without them. 

The origin of the quotation at the top of the page is his On Love, in a footnote in about the possibility of loving that which is ugly. He gives an anecdote about a man who falls in love, not with a woman who is conventionally beautiful but rather one who is not good looking, is too thin and is scarred with smallpox. He falls for her because she reminds him of a past love. Stendhal’s claim here is that beauty isn’t based on physical perfection. The idea of beauty is distinct from the physical form of the thing we desire. This may seem an odd way of conceiving of beauty, but it has a lineage that goes back to Plato. Beauty is kind of message or sign of something else.

Happiness, it seems, is elsewhere. We recall it or anticipate it, and the thing desired is somehow Other to where we are in space and time. The pursuit is not necessarily pleasurable, as the recollection of past happiness can be painful [1]. For Stendhal it is prompted by an erotic encounter, but presumably anything might serves as a trigger: the smell of autumn leaves, the hills in summer, a piece of music. One is reminded of Proust’s Madeleine, and the onrush of unbidden memory in his In Search of Lost Time. We are a long way from conventional ideas of harmony of form, or pleasing combinations of colour or tone. It seems to be less about beauty as it is usually understood, and more about a longed for state of felicity, however it is imagined: for past loves, for home, for childhood. Read more »

A Faint Distrust of Words

INTERVIEW BETWEEN ANDREA SCRIMA (A LESSER DAY)

AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.

When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.

In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »

The Legend of Marcus Aurelius

by Jenny White

LegendBerlinPhotobyJennyWhite

My friend and colleague Corky White likes to regale me with family legends, some of which are quite dramatic in both human and historic terms. They form a stark contrast to my own family history, much of which is unknown, and the part that is known consists of Bavarian peasants all the way down. At some point my grandparents moved from the Old Mill Valley to a regional city and their offspring spread themselves wide across the class spectrum and, in our case, across the globe. My uncle once put together a shallow genealogy, showing where family members were born, toiled, reproduced, and died. There are personal sagas involved in all this – my grandmother met my grandfather when they worked on the same farm, she as housemaid, he as stable boy. He stole up the stairs at night. My mother brought me with her on an ocean liner that docked in New York, where neither of us had ever been. But these are not family legends, they are not even stories people tell each other. They’re too personal, or too uninteresting to other family members who, after all, are living their own complicated stories.

What’s the difference between people who trace genealogies and families like Corky’s that collect legends? As legend has it, Corky’s grandfather, Mark Isaacs, was Abel to his elder brother’s Cain. Cain was Sir Rufus Isaacs, Marquess of Reading, Viceroy to India, who was implicated in the 1912 Marconi scandal in England. Somehow Sir Rufus put the family shame on Mark, who was expunged from the family and given a choice of Canada or Australia, where criminals were sent. If you google Marconi Scandal, you find a third Isaacs brother mentioned who actually managed the Marconi Company, but not the youngest brother, Mark aka Abel. Corky’s legend diverges from the historical narrative because legends privilege those parts of the story that have psychological saliency for the group that owns the legends. What do people learn or gain from performing these narratives at the dinner table, in the car, to children and friends?

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Desire Paths: Reading, Memory and Inscription

by Daniel Rourke

The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.

The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.

The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.

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